Jan Claudius de Cock, Africa. Signed and dated, 1704. Marble, 94.7 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Poised in a heroic stance derived from the canon of classical antiquity, a black youth vividly evokes African power and prestige at a crucial point in the continent’s encounter with the expanding commercial ventures of Europe. The suave elegance of the design, expressed by the artist’s consummate skill in the handling of texture, pattern and form, imparts a singular effect of luxury and grace to the figure.

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An inscription on the piece reveals that it was carved in 1704 by the Flemish sculptor, painter and printmaker Jan Claudius de Cock. The prolific artist worked in Antwerp, long a center of Flemish culture. By his time, though, the city had lost most of its economic importance, superseded by the rise of its Dutch neighbor Amsterdam as one of the great commercial powers of the age.

The artist’s large studio turned out many types of work, both religious and secular, all typified by an exuberantly expressive treatment of form and subject. One of de Cock’s specialties was the creation of lively, aesthetically intriguing figures of small children, or kindertjen, cast in the role of symbolic representations of the world of nature and myth.

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The visual approximation of broader cultural concepts, known as allegory, was very popular within the sophisticated scholarly taste of the time. Many of its key subjects dealt with the formal division of the natural world into groups of related phenomena, such as the four parts of the world, the four elements or the times of day. De Cock produced sets representing all of these themes, and the black youth with the city crown seen here could well have been part of a now dispersed set of the four continents—in this case, naturally, Africa.

In relation to the standard representations of Africa, however, this black youth departs from the norm in both form and symbolic attributes. The difference can be explained by the particular relationship between the Dutch republic and its interests in West Africa during this period. For de Cock, the use of the figure of a child as the bearer of allegorical significance seems merely to be a playful variant on the type of the adult female adopted as standard iconographical practice since the 16th century.

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Much more significant is the group of elements selected to adorn the figure. Instead of the customary imagery of the elephant’s headdress, lion, crocodile or scorpion to represent the African continent, de Cock’s youth displays a unique combination of objects. The fortress crown and the two objects held by the figure are seen nowhere else in the art of this period. It seems that the artist was intent on presenting a very different concept of Africa than that adopted during the early age of European exploration.

As the world beyond Europe came more clearly in focus, new agendas of commerce and territorial hegemony became the dominant concern of its ruling powers. Holland, as the Dutch republic is more commonly called, had made considerable inroads into the world of international trade since its independence during the late 16th century. For the Dutch, the relevant image of Africa came to be associated more specifically with the area along the shore of West Africa known as the Gold Coast, now part of the nation of Ghana.

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In 1637 Holland had captured the important trading center of Elmina. By the early 18th century, when de Cock carved this figure, the essential basis of the trading relationship between the Dutch republic and the native powers along the west coast of Africa had shifted from the acquisition of gold to the exportation of slaves. The position of Holland on the Gold Coast was greatly complicated by its recent involvement in the Komenda wars, a protracted struggle for dominance in the region not only by the foreign powers of Holland and Great Britain but also by several native states.

The statue of the black youth seems to have been carved as an embodiment of the Dutch nation’s commercial stake along the Gold Coast. In a larger sense, he still may represent the African continent as a whole, but informed by a more specific, updated reference to the West African coastal elite. All of the attributes carried by the figure establish his status as an independent authority.

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The long, slender object supported by his left hand seems to be a ceremonial sword, an emblem of power used by the Akan people of the region. The long strip of cloth arcing over his body resembles the famous kente cloth also found in the area. It symbolizes rank, as do the ostrich feathers suspended from the string of pearls worn across his chest. A more fundamental reference to strength and unity seems to lie in the impressive fortress crown worn by the youth and the turtle upon which he rests his right foot.

Other objects relate to the wider relationship of the figure with European interests. The scroll held in his right hand may symbolize the official nature of the trade relationship between native leaders and the Dutch. Beyond its broader symbolic meaning, the crown could evoke the importance of Elmina Castle for both trading parties. Though the subject of the portrait medallion worn around the youth’s neck cannot be identified, it may simply refer to the patron who commissioned the statue. Such seems to be the case with several busts produced by de Cock of the same medallion-wearing black youth. 

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Taken together, these attributes evoke a highly particular, local notion of Africa in the eyes of the Dutch who traded along the Gold Coast. Although idealized in this representation of a black youth, the figure reflects the actual state of commercial and political affairs between the Dutch and their African trading partners. Behind the beguiling image of childhood innocence and splendid regalia lies the corrupting influence of the slave trade, instigated by the insatiable demands for labor in the New World. And yet it may not be too speculative to see in this captivating figure the still hopeful expectation of the African continent for a more positive engagement with those coming to its shores.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root's editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.